The Annecy Murders took place during the afternoon of Wednesday 05 September 2012 in the Haute-Savoie region of South East France. Four people were shot dead and a child was seriously wounded in an accessible wooded location near the village of Chevaline. The perpetrator has never been caught or conclusively identified. This was the third part of my personal investigation into these murders which will be included in a book I am compiling called ‘Bullet Path’.

This collection of four blogs describes my three visits to the location and how the event can be linked to other brutal examples. You may be a fan of speculation and conspiracy of which there is plenty in this case. If it is just the facts you prefer then I hope what I found will interest you. 

The first person to arrive at the scene literally minutes after the shootings had taken place was a gentleman from the UK, Brett Martin. He had a holiday home in the vicinity, and he is a keen cyclist.

In September 2020 I interviewed Brett at his home in Brighton. He gave me a clear and candid perspective of what he found that afternoon and a valuable first hand view of the events that involved him in the immediate investigation. I am very grateful to him. I would also like to thank the original Surrey Police investigation team led by DCI Mark Preston, Zaid al-Hilli, the journalist Tom Parry and photographer Chris Powell.

Police investigators will always stress that the most important phase of a murder investigation is the period immediately after a crime has been committed; the crime scene, victims, witnesses, sightings/audio, weapons, material comprising possible DNA, fingerprints etc.

A crime scene surrounding a violent attack may be initially and inadvertently compromised by emergency services focused on saving life. The Annecy crime location was no exception.

Four of the victims were members of a visiting family from the UK, the fifth was a local French citizen. Four were killed and one seriously injured in a small parking area next to the narrow tarmac woodland Route Forestière Domaniale de la Combe d’Ire which is just south of Chevaline.

The victims were Iraqi born Saad al-Hilli, 50 and his wife Iqbal, 47, who both lived with their two daughters in Claygate Surrey. They were British citizens. Iqbal’s mother Suhaila al-Allaf, 74, (who held a Swedish passport), and a local French cyclist Sylvain Mollier, 45. The al-Hillis’ two daughters, Zainab, 7 and Zeena, 4, both survived the attack although Zainab al-Hilli was severely injured.

The French police and investigators came under much criticism in the immediate aftermath. These are the facts about the period immediately before and after these killings.

The al-Hilli family were on a caravan holiday and had visited the region before. Their caravan was situated on a site in Saint-Jerioz, close to Lake Annecy. Saad al-Hilli had playfully asked his eldest daughter, 7-year-old Zainab whether she would like to go shopping or walking on this particular afternoon. It was a beautiful day and the youngster suggested they go for a family walk. Saad al-Hilli had a conversation with the campsite owner who suggested the nearby Combe d’Ire forest route as an option. Saad al-Hilli established where it was and decided it was a good idea. The group set off in the family 5 series maroon BMW Tourer auto. They stopped en route to take family photographs in Doussard village which is just a short distance from Chevaline.

The start of the forest route is clearly marked off a sharp bend by a sign in French, English and German. The road is narrow, but tarmac sealed, broken somewhat in places but easily passable in a normal road vehicle or mountain bike and possible with care on a more delicate road bike. It is not a route that one would take in error or a track that you are confined to. There are opportunities to turnaround. It is pleasantly isolated, but it is not remote. There is nothing odd or sinister about it.

A short distance up the route on the left, there is a memorial to the local wartime French Resistance. As the road climbs it traverses nine stone bridges in places where it spans the d’Ire river. For a good proportion of the route the river actually flows alongside the road. It extends for 3 kms at which point it ends in front of a number of noticeably clear markers and information structures. It offers two roughly hewn parking areas on the left which are referred to as “Le Martinet”.

From this point visitors can cycle or walk on a labyrinth of paths and tracks that continue to climb and eventually descend towards the villages of Precherel and Jarsy to the south. The tarmac road does actually continue from here for a short distance, but visitors are clearly informed that from this point vehicle access is for Forestry vehicles only. Casual walkers, serious trekkers, mountain bikers and road cyclists can be found and met here. It is popular, beautiful, and well used. During appropriate season periods the vicinity is also frequented by hunters.

Unbeknown and unconnected to the al-Hilli group and each other were two keen local cyclists who set off on solo rides in the fine weather. Brett Martin started out from his holiday property in the nearby village of Lathuile which is north of Chevaline. He set off on his mountain bike intent on riding to Chevaline and climbing the Combe d’Ire; he had been there before and knew the route. Further away to the south east, a French local, Sylvain Mollier set of from his home in Ugine on his road bike. Mollier also included Chevaline on his route that day but from what could be ascertained he had not climbed the Combe d’Ire route before.

Martin and Mollier’s routes converged on a road junction in Chevaline just before the start of the forest route; Mollier was in front. Brett Martin initially saw him as a pace challenge and started to make an effort to keep up with him. Soon realising that Mollier was possibly younger and fitter and on a lighter road bike he relaxed from the pursuit and Mollier moved on ahead. The 3 km climb on a cycle requires some effort, that is simply why local and visiting cyclists climb it, for the reward of reaching the top. Brett Martin intended to reach the top where the car parks are situated and then turn back and enjoy the ride back down. We can only assume that Mollier on a road bike would have done the same.

Halfway up the climb the al-Hilli BMW passed Brett Martin, he remembers it but at the time it held no significance, a passing vehicle was as an anticipated occurrence. It can only be calculated whether they passed Mollier. If they didn’t, both car and cycle arrived at the Le Martinet parking area at around the same time.

After the al-Hilli’s car had passed him Brett Martin remembered a large motorcycle coming down the route towards him. The biker slowed down to the point of almost having to put a foot down to affect a halt as he was almost adjacent to Brett. He didn’t stop however, and the pair continued on their respective directions. This motorcyclist wore a very distinctive helmet and was riding a large adventure bike. The biker was key to the initial investigation. He was eventually traced to his home in Lyon and after questioning the police eliminated him from their enquiries.

Brett Martin was to be the first to arrive at the murder scene soon after the shooting had been perpetrated, this was just a matter of minutes. He had not heard any gunfire despite being just hundreds of metres below the murder site. From an audio perspective this was curious but perfectly reasonable; it is called the anisotropic effect, the directional dependant properties that determine whether we hear something or not. In this instance the murder site elevation and his position in the trees below it was critical. His focus at the time had been on the physical effort required to complete the climb. He was conscious of the sound of his own breathing and physical exertions, his bike on the uneven route and the river splashing and gurgling next to him.

As Brett Martin laboured up the climb approaching the Le Martinet car park area, he was totally unaware of what had occurred. On the last part of the climb the road straightens, and he noticed a bike in the middle of the road adjacent to the parking area on the left about 200 metres ahead. He knew this was the extent of the road route for motorised vehicles.

He thought it was odd that a cyclist would just lie a bike on the road rather than prop it up to one side. He then saw a child stumble into his view from the left, but she looked as if she was play acting, not uncharacteristic of a young child. She then fell down into the road. As he pedalled closer the UK registered BMW that had passed him came into view, facing out from the parking area on his left. Immediately in front of the car was a prostrate body, a male on his back with his arms straight alongside him. Brett Martin had come across a rather odd and surreal scenario and initially surmised there had been some sort of collision between the car and the cyclist. When he reached the child, she was obviously seriously hurt. There was blood on her upper body and she had a head wound and appeared semi-conscious. He moved her away from the threat of the car which was behind her and left her lying on her front.

He could hear the car engine running and thought best to also drag the male body clear. This was the cyclist, Sylvain Mollier who he now recognised as the rider he had seen ahead of him earlier. Brett grabbed Mollier under the armpits and pulled him clear of the car, his limp body showed no sign of life, he had been shot multiple times. He felt for a pulse, there was nothing,

Brett then turned his attention to the car. He now recognised what appeared to be bullet holes in the windscreen and side windows. Inside were three bodies, all dead as far as he could ascertain and clearly shot. The driver in the right hand seat was Saad al-Hilli, his wife and mother-in-law were in the back. The car doors were locked. With his hands protected by cycle gloves he punched the remaining glass out of the driver’s door window, reached in and turned off the ignition. The rear driven wheels were embedded in the soft sandy soil at the base of a bank immediately behind the car. Brett remembered the distinctive smell of a hot engine and transmission. The now eerie silence was the antithesis of the bizarre horror in front of him.

He then tried to call the emergency services on his mobile but couldn’t get a signal. He realised he would have to cycle down the track to get through. He contemplated carrying the injured female child down, she was very small and petite but he considered that this might exacerbate her injuries. This was 7-year-old Zainab al-Hilli. He decided to leave her but he carefully placed her to the side of the track in a recovery position. He was fearful the perpetrator was still around, perhaps watching him. His only thought, if he was to be included as an additional target, he hoped it wouldn’t hurt. He started to pedal down the hill.

Just a couple of hundred metres down the track he met a car innocently coming up; he blocked the route and stopped the driver. This was a Frenchman, Phillipe Dedier, (not his real name), with two female companions. They were intent on a day’s hill walking. Brett Martin tried to explain in French what he had found, struggling for some of the descriptive words he wanted. One of the women got a mobile signal and rang the emergency services.

Phillippe was determined to go on up to the site and Brett tried to dissuade him. The trio continued in their car and Brett followed on his bike. Phillippe Dedier had got out of the car having first turned it around facing downhill when Brett arrived. After surveying the catastrophic scene Phillippe noticed the BMW’s UK registration and assumed Brett was also from the UK; he naturally and initially considered a possible connection. Brett pleaded with him, desperate to convince the Frenchman that he was just the first witness. Zainab al-Hilli was still lying still where Brett had left her.

Satisfied the emergency services were responding the entire party now started down the route to meet them. Towards the bottom of the route Brett met another cyclist and advised him not to go up. He also came across another cyclist, uncharacteristically overweight, walking his bike down the hill. At the bottom a SMUR, (Service Mobile d’Urgence et Reanimation), passed him and went straight up the route. These were First Responders. They are part of the SAMU, the Urgent Medical Aid Service.

This was followed by two Fire and Rescue vehicles. Soon behind them were two Gendarmerie vehicles. What surprised and rather impressed Brett was the fact that the SAMU unit went up first, their priority being the casualties. They didn’t wait for the protection of armed Gendarmes. The second Gendamerie van stopped and Brett explained that it was him who had found the scene. He was invited to accompany the police officer back up to the location and his bike was put into the back of the police vehicle.

On arrival he got out and stood to the side watching the arrival of more authorities. He noticed the medics efficiently dealing with Zainab al-Hilli.

“I’m no policeman Andy”, he modestly exclaimed.

“But I was surprised at the manner the French police and investigators started the process”.

As a witness to the initial Annecy murder scene and the immediate first stages of the investigation Brett Martin was a shrewd observer. I always thought it was curious how he was described by the media at the time, namely – The ex-RAF pilot. Was this meant to conjure up the image of a fearless aviator plunging into the murder scene as if he were dragging comrades out of a crashed aeroplane. Whatever we were supposed to imagine, he was far better. Brett Martin is a very observant and articulate gentleman with an eye for detail. That has been his life.

William Brett Martin was born in Auckland on the North Island of New Zealand in June 1959. In 1977 at the age of 18 he joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force as an Officer entry and completed 6 months training which included aircrew selection and BFT, (basic flying training). He volunteered for the armed forces Commonwealth scheme and was selected to come to the UK to transfer into the Royal Air Force. His personal reasoning was simple – more opportunities. He arrived in the UK first having been discharged from the RNZAF and transferred to the RAF, (a simple paperwork exercise). He completed his officer and initial flying training at RAF Cranwell and was streamed to fly fast jets. He went on to fly the McDonnell Phantom F4. His role as a military pilot was very analytical, precise, and procedural.

Brett left the RAF in 1989 and joined the airline industry as a pilot. By 2012 he was a freelance type rated synthetic aircrew instructor and examiner for Boeing. By this period, the entire flying industry both civilian and military had further embraced the concept and importance of ‘human factors’ and CRM, crew resource management. These insertions were to radically change and further improve the concept of flight safety and efficiency. Procedures and attention to detail were an intricate part of his job and had been throughout his aviation career.

Brett Martin had arrived at a catastrophic and unprecedented murder scene with four dead bodies, a seriously injured child and no sign of a perpetrator. Once the police investigators started arriving, he noticed Individual characters and their assistants turning up in what was obviously increasing seniority. Whilst one investigator was carefully placing yellow markers alongside ejected spent cartridge cases which littered the area other uniformed police officers seemed to be aimlessly wandering around the scene peering through the shattered windows of the BMW and looking down at the dead body of Sylvain Mollier. There didn’t appear to him to be an orderly crime scene process. Whilst the senior ranks stood out there did not seem to be a delegated officer in obvious charge of the crime scene.

Nobody approached Brett and none of the investigators asked why he was stood there in bloodied cycling gear. None of the paramedics approached him to see if he was okay, nobody had seemingly told them who he was. As the first witness he was physically unhurt but psychologically he could have been enormously distressed and traumatised. With the exception of the medical priorities there was seemingly no investigative sequence of events. Brett still couldn’t get a signal on his mobile so he asked an official if he could borrow his device to phone his wife back home in the UK. He got through to his wife Theresa in Brighton and briefly explained what he had witnessed so she was prepared for the inevitable follow up. Nobody interrupted him or questioned why he was on a mobile phone at a crime scene.

He was impressed with the medical services. Zainab al-Hilli was extracted by an air ambulance helicopter. The machine arrived overhead and settled in the hover in the airspace above the clearing offered by the road and parking area. She was carefully strapped into a lowered stretcher and cautiously winched up into the aircraft. This was a well practised means of casualty evacuation in this mountainous region. She was taken to a hospital in Grenoble.

After approximately two hours he was taken from the scene back down the route and driven to the Gendarmerie police station in nearby Faverge. Phillipe Dedier and his friends were already there. Here his hands were swabbed for gunfire residue and his belongings were recorded on an inventory. He remained in his clothes however which were still bloodstained. He was not asked to remove them. From the French perspective they naturally surmised a possible connection between Brett and the victims being that he and the al-Hilli family were coincidentally from the UK. His interview was conducted in French. Whilst Brett had a reasonable knowledge, he was not fluent, and the process stretched his skills. He was anticipating that the French would procure an English speaker, (as would happen in the UK as a matter of priority), in order to extract a totally accurate summary of events but it didn’t happen. They were seemingly content with his descriptive efforts and he was just keen to assist. Four hours later he was taken to his holiday home along with his bike in a police van. The officers came in to see his passport, confirming his identity. He was left with the impression that they were happy that he lived in France and there was no restriction imposed on him with regard to travelling back to the UK despite giving details in Faverge.

Meanwhile four-year-old Zeena al-Hilli was still hidden in the family car, huddled in the rear footwell beneath her mother and grandmother whilst investigators pondered, waiting for forensic specialists to arrive. It was only after talking to staff at the al-Hilli’s campsite that they became aware that they had overlooked Zeena al-Hilli who was unhurt.

Brett Martin decided to fly home on the Friday and prepared himself and his family for the next anticipated stages. He washed all his soiled clothing; nobody had told him not to. The UK media was focused on the conclusion of the International Paralympics results. The next day, Saturday 08 September the Annecy murders was on the front page of every newspaper.

The Foreign Office contacted Brett and advised him and his family about the sequence of events that would follow and that he would be required for further questioning. A joint investigation had been set up between the regional French authorities and Surrey Police, (because the al-Hilli family had originated from Claygate). He was advised that he would be escorted back to France to aid with the ongoing joint investigation. He was also warned about media interest and at this early stage he would be advised not to speak to them when he was approached. The following day there was a knock at the door. There stood Tom Symonds from the BBC with a cameraman alongside him. Brett didn’t invite him in and politely informed Tom Symonds what he had been advised. In turn the correspondent gave him his card and didn’t push questions. He did however suggest that when the time was right, Brett might consider giving a one off exclusive interview thereby fending off the possibility of being misquoted by multi agency approaches.

Brett was informed by Surrey Police that he should make himself available the following Tuesday to travel to France and back in one day. He would be collected, transported, looked after, protected and returned. He just needed his passport. Sure enough on the Tuesday two very lean and keen looking individuals collected him and drove him to Gatwick Airport. He entered the airport straight to airside. Waiting briefly in a comfortable lounge he was quickly processed and escorted onto an aircraft to Geneva.

He went over the experience once again with the now joint investigation teams. Returning to the murder site he was given a ballistic vest to wear. It was sensibly considered that the perpetrator could still be in the vicinity and might fear that Brett Martin might have seen him, (he did not of course), or could give the investigation valuable information. He recalled the rather surreal experience of going over the scene again but this time being surrounded by armed chaperones.

Brett phoned his wife in the late afternoon and she advised him that the short avenue they live in was filled with press vans, journalists, and camera operators. The Martin’s neighbours remained loyal and refused to talk to journalists who had approached them. Theresa Martin certainly refused to talk to them. Additionally, both the neighbours and the press throng had no idea where Brett was that day. When he left France to return to the UK, he was preparing to spend a night away from home. There was no cause for concern, the entourage had started to disperse by early evening. Brett arrived home, the avenue was back to normal.

It was over a week after the event that Brett Martin began to feel free from suspicion, especially from the French perspective. The fact that most of the victims had originated from the UK and were murdered in a UK registered vehicle and had been initially found by a UK national in the middle of France was bound to arouse concern. He accepted that.

The French authorities opened the crime scene just days after the murders. This was considered odd by the standards employed by their UK counterparts. Casual visitors, journalists, even macabre voyeurs were given free access. Any further clues overlooked in the important initial phases were to be potentially compromised for ever.

The entire murder episode began to take on an international event status despite the circumstances and evidence indicating that the murders were a very local occurrence. The fact that three of the victims were Iraqi immediately conjured up links with their home country, even Saddam Hussein and Israeli intelligence. The work locations of both Saad al-Hilli and Sylvain Mollier were considered relevant although neither had worked on sensitive issues or materials connected to international security.

Internal family disputes over inherited money and property between Saad al-Hilli and his elder brother Zaid, an accountant, who lived in Chessington became of interest to the investigation. This led to Zaid al-Hilli’s arrest and questioning by Surrey police on 24 June 2013. A theory emerged that Zaid al-Hilli might have organised a “contract killing”. Zaid al-Hilli angrily denied any involvement. He admitted differences between he and his brother and realistically likened it to arguments and differences in any family. He had to bear the loss of members of his family and suffer the worry and concern over his 7-year-old orphaned niece who was so badly hurt. There was no evidence to implicate him and he was released from bail conditions in January 2014.

Zaid has ever since harboured an angry mistrust about the investigation, particularly against the French authorities. He has never visited France since the murders through fear of being detained.

It was discovered that Iqbal al-Hilli had been married before she had met Saad al-Hilli. This was to an American, James Thompson in 1999. It was a marriage of convenience and it ended with an amicable divorce in 2000. Thompson, 60, by coincidence died at the wheel of his car in Mississippi on the same day as the murders in France.  He suffered a heart attack whilst driving. His lifestyle, smoking habits and diet had prompted doctors to warn him about the risks he faced; he was in poor health. Despite this, it naturally added fuel to the fire of conspiracy.

Some of the locals in nearby Chevaline were reported to be somewhat relieved by the international distraction and focus. Perhaps sheltering a rather naïve view of themselves they felt it was unfair that their region should be considered a dangerous environment, harbouring or attracting individuals with murderous intent.

The reality has been somewhat different. The region is indeed a beautiful environment and it would be both unfair and unrealistic to label it as dangerous. Nevertheless, it has had its fair share of brutal murders and disappearances. There had been instances before the Annecy murders and there have been a number of instances since.

The motorcyclist who met Brett Martin coming down the forest route was the biker wearing the rare design of helmet that the police were keen to find. Much was made of this in the press at the time, he was eventually traced in Lyon. He had in fact been stopped earlier by forestry officials for riding beyond the prohibitive signs at Le Martinet. After questioning he was soon eliminated from their enquiries. He had remarked to the police that he had remained quite unaware of what had occurred in the period before they had approached him.

Close to Chevaline, two men, totally unconnected have both disappeared and are presumed dead after leaving an annual rock festival which is held at Fort de Tamie which is just 8 kilometres from Chevaline. Ahmed Hamadou, 45, arrived at the festival on 08 September 2012 with a friend in his car, just three days after the Annecy murders. He left alone, set on hitch hiking home to Chambery. He has never been seen since. Jean-Christophe Morin, 22, left the same festival the year before to hitch hike home on 10 September 2011. He too has never been seen again.

In November 2013 two masked men entered the house of a man and woman who owned a popular campsite in the village of Lathuile. This was just 3km north of Chevaline. They shot and killed the woman and badly beat her husband. Four men were later arrested. Despite the murderous brutality of this attack the police were satisfied that the attackers were not responsible for the Annecy murders.

In February 2014 police arrested Eric Devouasoux, 48, from nearby Lathuile. He had been dismissed from the Municipal Police in June 2013. He was formally accused of trading illegally in World War II weapons. Despite being local and a person of interest he provided a conclusive alibi at the time of the murders.

In April 2014 French investigators approached Patrice Menegaldo, a retired French Foreign Legion soldier from Ugine who had been suffering with mental illness. He was not questioned as a suspect but in June 2014 he committed suicide, leaving a lengthy written script describing the shame he felt about just being approached. This has led the police to consider that Menegaldo, since taking his own life should be considered as a prime suspect.

In October 2014 Jean-Francois Hauteville, 47, was shot dead while he sat in his van alongside a quiet road near Neuvecelle, 100 km to the North East of Chevaline. An associate was implicated but he hanged himself whilst in police custody.

The Annecy murders have been compared to the “Dominici Affair”, a triple, predominately shooting murder which took place in France in August 1952. The murder location is 250 km south of Chevaline near the small town of Lurs on Route 96, (now the D4096). This was the roadside shooting murder of Sir Jack Drummond and his wife Lady Anne. Their 10-year-old daughter Elizabeth was bludgeoned to death with the murder weapon, an American war surplus .30 M1 rifle carbine. The Drummond’s were also on a camping holiday and the location they stopped at and met their deaths was chosen at random. The circumstances have some similarities to the Annecy killings. The roadside location and the nearby farm are virtually unchanged.

Not long after the BBC Panorama documentary in 2012 Brett was again interviewed by the French police authorities. They set up the television interview for viewing, this being the French version with subtitles. They stopped on the frame where Brett declared what he initially saw at the murder scene and drew attention to the sub-title script which stated, ‘cycliste’. They implied that he had perhaps changed his story on film, contrary to what he had said in his initial police interview, ‘cycliste’ being French for cyclist. He had done nothing of the sort.

There had been an obvious confusion in the translation, (despite the French and English words being almost identical), the sub-title should have read, bicyclette. Brett Martin had always declared that the first thing he had seen was a ‘cycle’, not a cyclist. The French detectives were immediately deflated and somewhat embarrassed.

In 2017, just five years later, the investigation teams changed. This is common practise in unsolved crimes, the aim being to introduce a fresh perspective. This was reported in the press as a re-opening of the case. That was inaccurate, the case has never been closed. Brett was asked to attend a period of questioning at a site near Hove. The new joint team assembled here.

A great deal has been written about these shocking murders. With no apprehended perpetrator speculation and conspiracy swirl around. Much is made in this type of senseless killing of the motive. What was the killers’ motive? Only the perpetrator understands that, but we should not be expected to. If it was a random killing the murderer certainly had a motive – hate, vengeance, revenge, a blind and desperate reckoning. Who are we to understand the mind of such a person?

Was the style of this brutal act unique? It most certainly was not. In July 2022 I returned to the location with my son. We are both keen cyclists and we restaged the Martin/Mollier approach to the murder site, noting the all important timings. We also investigated the route beyond the Le Martinet parking area up to the Col de Cherel and the descent towards Jarsy. The next blog details this.